Phyllis Kachere – Deputy News Editor-Convergence
Seventeen-year-old Nontokozo Ncube, a Form Four learner at Ivimila High School in Mangwe district, Matabeleland South, used to miss school for a day or two every month since she started her menstrual journey two years ago.
“When I started menstruating at 15, I would miss classes for a day or two every time I had my period,” she said. “My period would come unexpectedly while I was in class. That meant I would stain my school uniform. Resultantly, I would leave school and walk the 5km distance back home in Mapulula Village.
“I would not come back because doing so would mean I find the day’s classes done. I missed classes and was always behind in my school work.”
Nontokozo said since the construction of the girl child-friendly toilet at her school by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society last year, she has never missed class.
“When I stain my skirt or need privacy to change my pad, I use the girl child-friendly toilet where I just wash off the stain and quickly go back to class,” she said.
Nontokozo is not alone as most girls at her school used to lose out by either missing classes when they had their periods or completely dropping out of school.
Another Form Four learner at Ivimila High School, Monica Ndlovu (18) said the running water and mirror in the girl child-friendly toilet made it easier for her to regain her confidence during her period.
“I lost my confidence due to jeering by class mates every time I stained my skirt when I had my period. That is now history, because I now have a private place where I can change my period, fix my hair and face while looking in the mirror,” said Monica, who comes from Malapulula Village.
“I have regained my confidence, thanks to this girl child-friendly toilet. I know I am not only speaking for myself, but my female class mates too.”
Ivimila High School youth adviser and teacher, Ms Precious Dube, told The Herald that absenteeism from school by the female learners due to menstrual hygiene issues had decreased.
“Almost all the female learners at this school used to miss class for at least a day when they had their period,” she said. “But since last year when the girl child-friendly toilet was constructed, absenteeism has decreased.
“I do not have the comparative figures right away, but from experience, as teachers we can testify that the girl child-friendly toilet has largely contributed to this.”
Ms Dube said the girl child friendly toilet has helped the girls to feel safer and more confident when they have their periods.
“They are no longer embarrassed when they stain their skirts because they can go, wash off the stain and still come back in time for other classes,” she said.
“Even their confidence levels have greatly improved. As a youth advisor, I feel so encouraged seeing these young women take up school responsibilities with confidence.”
During a recent commissioning of a retrofitted three-classroom block at Kwite Primary School in the same district, Matabeleland provincial education director Mrs Beatrice Manjere said the girl child-friendly toilet was piloted in Mangwe district by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society in 2018.
This was part of the comprehensive school safety project that advocated for the increased adoption of disaster risk reduction in schools.
Through this project, targeted learning institutions were supported in constituting school disaster management committees.
These were trained in disaster management, school risk assessment and contingency planning.
“The construction of the block by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society was supported by the Finnish Red Cross, Belgium Red Cross and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office under the project aimed at increasing disaster preparedness of vulnerable districts in Zimbabwe through school, community and institutional capacity building,” said Mrs Manjere.
She said 10 schools were targeted under phase one.
Each school had a girl child and disabled-friendly toilet constructed and had classroom door steps replaced with access ramps, making them user-friendly.
The project is currently in its phase two and has seen incorporation of five more schools, making the total target of 15 schools.
Mrs Manjere said the schools were selected through a consultative process with the District Civil Protection Committee comprised of district development coordinator’s office, Mangwe Rural District Council and the district school’s inspector office, among others.
Information on the UNICEF website says without access to safe and hygienic toilet facilities, many girls around the world did not go to school when they were menstruating.
“To avoid missing school, some girls hide used cloths in their pockets while others do not eat or drink during the day, making it impossible to learn effectively, leading to bowel and bladder problems later in life.
“Girls who change their menstrual pads in the open away from school run the risk of sexual harassment or even rape.
“Girls need a toilet space which is separate from boys, or they will not feel safe. They will avoid school and their education will suffer,” said global icon in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), WaterAid, in a statement.
The girl child-friendly toilet is the result of a guide that was jointly written by WaterAid, UNICEF and the Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP).
The guide recommends the consideration of six requirements for female-friendly toilets. These include safety and privacy; allowing for menstrual hygiene management, accessibility and good maintenance.
A statement on one of the largest humanitarian organisations in the country, World Vision’s website says: “Not having safe toilets to use at school is a major reason why many girls worldwide miss or even drop out of school.”
A UNICEF report states that Sustainable Development Goal targets recognise that for girls, appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities are particularly important in ensuring their safe and healthy participation in school.
“WASH facilities have both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors for girls’ education.
“Girls can struggle to attend and stay in school if they do not have safe, single-sex and hygienic facilities which are essential for menstrual hygiene management.
“Although there is still little evidence, reports have recognised that ‘the introduction of appropriate water and sanitation facilities has been associated with improved girls’ attendance in class,” read the UNICEF report that was done in 2019.